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Review | High marks for Studio Theatre’s ‘John Proctor Is a Villain’

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Never underestimate the importance of a dancing teenage girl. The smart, wary high-schoolers in Kimberly Belflower’s inspired “John Proctor Is the Villain,” now in a world-premiere run at Studio Theatre, may look as if they’re just bopping around to the music of Lorde and Taylor Swift. But their moves — and gripping, funny talk — cast light on urgent social concerns, from the patriarchy’s grip to the implications of #MeToo, to widespread deficits of trust. And if the kids can blow off some steam in the process, that’s a plus.

And there’s a lot for the characters to steam about in this tale of friendship, sexual scandal and coming of age at a small-town Georgia high school. Not only has Belflower ingeniously set up nuanced resonances with America’s broader civic zeitgeist, she has also written a touching, and sometimes hilarious, portrait of bracingly specific 21st-century young people. Add a trenchant literary dimension — the play converses with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” — and “John Proctor” is, its slightly slow and expository beginning aside, pushing for a 4.0 GPA.

Marti Lyons (Studio’s “The Wolves”) directs the production, which glides from intensity to humor to poignancy on designer Luciana Stecconi’s vivid classroom set. This classroom is where several high school juniors, including overachiever Beth (Miranda Rizzolo), “Twilight”-obsessed preacher’s daughter Raelynn (Jordan Slattery) and new-to-town keen observer Nell (Deidre Staples), launch a feminism club. After the gifted teacher Mr. Smith (Dave Register) signs on as the club’s faculty sponsor, prospects look good for calm discussions of intersectionality and the like. But then sensational allegations surface within and beyond the school, coinciding not only with #MeToo, but also with the reappearance of Raelynn’s former friend Shelby (Juliana Sass) after an unexplained absence.

In just one example of the ensemble’s uniformly knockout acting, Sass aces the troubled Shelby — now hard-eyed, now vulnerable, sometimes rocking on her heels as she nervously twists her backpack straps, always brilliantly idiosyncratic. “I’ve gotten really into the ocean,” Shelby says at one point, over a Slurpee. “It makes me feel better about my life to know that there are fish with teeth on the outside of their heads.”

All the actors capitalize on Belflower’s flair for charting personalities as well as shifting relationships. A sweet, awkward study session in which Nell and classmate Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) discuss “The Crucible” is a case in point.

“The Crucible” is of course the classic that depicts the flawed truth-teller John Proctor’s opposition to the Salem witch trials (a crisis that follows a surreptitious dance party in the woods). Belflower’s play on one level answers Miller’s piece, reimagining and recontextualizing it through a contemporary awareness of toxic masculinity, sexual abuse and harassment, and structural power inequity.

It is no minimization of this play’s many other achievements to say that, after watching it, you will never view “The Crucible” in the same way again.

John Proctor Is the Villain, by Kimberly Belflower. Directed by Marti Lyons; costume design, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Kathy Ruvuna; props, Deb Thomas; intimacy and fight choreographer, Chelsea Pace. With Lida Maria Benson, Zachary Keller and Resa Mishina. About 2 hours 20 minutes. $45-$110. Through June 5 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.

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